Rocket’s Red Glare

When I was very young, I was a space junkie, mesmerized by the juvenile science fiction shows that were beginning to pop up on television.  Rockets regularly propelled themselves skyward from launch platforms which, even at the age of four or five, I recognized as stylized, thriftily-executed paintings.  It was always twilight at the local spaceport, and the sky was always fringed with the same cirrus clouds.  One evening after an episode of “Space Patrol,” when my father suggested that I accompany him uptown to watch the Rocket arrive, my heart thumped faster, as I anticipated something sleek and silvery with graceful fins, a long plume of fire erupting from its tail as it darted across the sky and wheeled around to come in for a landing behind the water tower.

What I witnessed instead was a spectacle of technology from another era.  A shrieking locomotive hauling several passenger cars thundered past, and seemed to make the whole north end of town rattle.  Men inside the passing cars stared at their newspapers or settled back in their seats and tried to nap.  I don’t remember if the train I saw that evening, the Rocky Mountain Rocket, was part of the Railway Mail Service, but it may have been.  As those trains streaked past, they would snatch a canvas mail sack from the arm of a crane beside the track and deposit the incoming sack, leaving it swaying at the end of a steel hook.  It would be loaded onto a dray cart and then pushed up the gravel incline behind the depot toward the post office.  Sometimes the steel hook eviscerated the sack and sent mail fluttering everywhere, but that was rare.  Not until many years later did it occur to me that my father had wanted to make sure I saw this twilight rendezvous, because its days were numbered. 

I recall going out of my way to walk past the depot once or twice after that, finding Mr. Paulsen manning his post in front of the big bay window with its clear view up and down the tracks, occasionally wandering over to monitor the chattering telegraph.  Not long afterward the telegraph fell silent, the depot closed, and Mr. Paulsen relocated to Stockton.  The same thing went on a few years later, seven miles to the north in the village of Lovewell, where the the closing of the depot left a deep gash and a lingering scar.

They sat in the old room and listened.  Perhaps they felt they were being snubbed by an old friend. Tuesday morning, area residents and businessmen gathered at the Santa Fe depot at Lovewell for a hearing conducted by he Kansas Corporation Commission. The Santa Fe Railroad was asking permission to close the Lovewell depot which serves the Lovewell and Webber communities.  Before the hearing began, there was little hope that the depot would continue in operation.  After the hearing  ended, someone said, "Maybe they won't let them close it."

The story was carried in the January 28, 1968 edition of the Salina Journal.  His byline doesn’t seem to be attached to it in the text-only version I’ve seen, but the writing was probably the work of the Journal’s District Editor, Tom Lovewell.    

Chuck Diamond, Webber bulk oil dealer, said. "Our roads are bad up here: Motor freight won't deliver off US-36 or K-14 highway.” 

“Service to Courtland won't do us any good.  We need it here,” Carl Westin, area farmer and Superintendent of Jewell County Schools, said.  "Sure, last year was a bad year for farmers.  There wasn't much grain shipped.  We were hailed out.  My farms made $45 after expenses but we're not quitting just because of a backset.  Why shouldn't the railroad keep faith, t00?  The railroads have a responsibility to uphold.  They were subsidized with school land in the beginning.  We need them.”

Lovewell marina at Lovewell reservoir also protested loss to local freight service.  Mrs. Chet Poole ended testimony by pointing out that the railroad came through the area in 1888 because of a gift of right-of-way given by her grandfather Tom Lovewell.  "We would hate to see the Santa Fe go. It's been a good friend," she said.

If family historian Orel Poole’s comments seem more appropriate for a eulogy, it may have been because she understood the purpose of the meeting.  It was less a hearing than an early-bird funeral service, the chance to utter a few gracious words while the guest of honor lingered on life support.  The Santa Fe could show the Kansas Corporation Commission that it was losing money on its operation at Lovewell.  Someone in the crowd pointed out that for purposes of making that demonstration, it had been allowed to slip revenue generated from nearby Webber into a different accounting pigeonhole.  But if it had been breaking even on local freight service, the railroad was not in business to break even.

Exactly eighty years after its ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Lovewell Depot was to be retired.  The Rocky Mountain Rocket had been put out to pasture two years earlier.  There would be no more glimpses of men in railway cars at dusk being whisked from one end of the state to the other.  As the decision about the fate of the depot was in the works, another kind of rocket was being readied that would inject three Americans into lunar orbit.  This was also a travel destination that would be available for only a limited time.

The picture of the old Santa Fe Depot at Lovewell on slideshow page of this site was snapped in 2005 when Barb Gray and her sister Bev, great-great-granddaughters of Hepsabeth Lovewell, were on a family-heritage tour of the region, guided by their new friend Angie from their old hometown of Beatrice.  A more recent picture from another site shows the depot in a transitional phase, somewhere between noble ruin and moldering carcass.  

There’s an old line from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” when Lou Grant is asked how he’d like to be buried, and says, “I don't want anybody to make any  fuss.  When I go, I just want to be stood outside in the garbage with my hat on.”  I was reminded of that, seeing the pictures of the defunct depot.  At least someone thought to send it off with a shiny new hat.

My thanks to Dave Lovewell for pointing me to the story of the depot hearing from the archives of the Salina Journal on  

© Dale Switzer 2023